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China Steps Up Its Information War in Taiwan

Taiwan’s Election Is a Test Run for Beijing’s Worldwide Propaganda Strategy

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen at a campaign rally in Taoyuan, Taiwan, January 2020 Tyrone Siu / Reuters

On January 11, Taiwanese voters will elect a new president and parliament. The election pits incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against Han Kuo-yu, the mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, and his opposition Kuomintang (KMT). But the vote is about more than that. It is a battle over the island’s relationship with China—a contest between those advocating for more distance from the mainland and those calling for less.

Joining Tsai and Han in that contest is a third, unofficial contestant: Beijing. The Chinese government has undertaken a vast information influence campaign designed to support its favored candidates and sow distrust in Taiwan’s democracy.

China’s efforts go far beyond spreading disinformation and stale state propaganda. Beijing’s ambition is to shape the production, dissemination, and consumption of information in Taiwan. And as my colleagues and I argue in a forthcoming Brookings report, these efforts foreshadow a sophisticated strategy to influence every stage of the global information supply chain, from the people who produce content to the institutions that publish it and the platforms that deliver it directly to consumers. Democracies around the world should pay close attention to what happens in Taiwan’s election—for their own journalists, media companies, and platforms are fast becoming the focus of similar efforts by Beijing.

THE STAKES

As in most Taiwanese elections, the future of the cross-strait relationship looms large in the current race. Tsai’s DPP views Taiwan and China as separate entities and has worked to keep Beijing at arm’s length. Han’s KMT, by contrast, generally considers China and Taiwan to be part of the same country. If elected, Han is expected to pursue much closer cross-strait ties that could end up eroding Taiwan’s autonomy and, some fear, help pave the way for unification.

At a time of heightened tensions between China and the United States, the fate of Taiwan matters more than ever. The island’s significance is partly symbolic, its robust

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